Jenkins VFW Meat Raffle: Betting on the bacon
Some come for the chance to acquire meat, others for the camaraderie, still more come to experience small-town Midwestern Americana at its most iconic.
If one thing is for sure, the meat raffle at the VFW Post 3839 in Jenkins draws a crowd, from locals who've attended for more than a decade to seasonal visitors and road trippers who've caught wind of the raffle's reputation.
In April, the VFW gained statewide attention when it placed first in CBS affiliate WCCO's viewer poll on the best meat raffle in Minnesota. It's now about to receive national recognition, following a visit from Los Angeles Times reporter John Glionna, who said until he came to Minnesota, he'd never heard of a meat raffle before.
Glionna flew into Minneapolis on a red-eye flight on Saturday, Aug. 2, and made the trek north to Jenkins from there. He said he first heard of gambling for meat while in the Twin Cities in April, working on a story about winter bike riding. After receiving an e-mail a few weeks later from a friend about WCCO's poll, he set out to tell the story of a cultural quirk unique to the Midwest.
Glionna is originally from Syracuse, N.Y., near the Finger Lakes area, so traveling to the Brainerd lakes area reminded him of home, he said.
"There's a down-home friendliness you don't get in bigger cities," he said. "Had we even had a meat raffle in Los Angeles, it wouldn't be the same as it is (in Jenkins)."
He said his story is likely to appear on the front page of the Los Angeles Times some time in the next couple weeks.
"Jenkins is a town of about 430 people. I think that attention to the club and to the raffle itself probably brought new customers in," said Steve Eisenreich, assistant gambling manager. "We were really grateful for that ... so many VFWs today are really struggling to survive."
On any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, Mary Parker, Cleo Smith and Leanne Philipson, dressed in blue T-shirts and armed with raffle tickets, canvass the crowd for those interested in gambling to win chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks, bacon and more.
The tickets cost $1 each and up to 168 tickets are available for sale each round. The packages go up in value as the rounds progress. First, the $5 packages are given away at a rate of one package per seven tickets sold, then up to packages worth $15 by the fourth round, which are distributed one per every 21 tickets sold.
Eisenreich said the club spends around $180,000 per year on meat for the raffle, which is supplied by Emily Meats in Emily. Between January and June 2014, the club saw a net profit of around $24,000 from the weekly event, which they've been putting on since 1992. This profit does not account for patron spending on pull tabs, food and beverages while participating in the raffle. Because the VFW is a nonprofit veteran's organization, all of its profits go directly into various service projects.
Club manager Deb Tulenchik said that when she took over management of the business more than two years ago, it was losing money and fast.
"When I took over, it was headed for closure," she said.
Since then, she said the chemistry between employees of the bar, kitchen and gambling has improved tremendously and she attributes the increased success partly to this shift.
"Without the meat raffle, we'd (the bar) be nothing. Without us, they'd be nothing," she said. "Our goal here is to be the heart of the community."
Last Friday night, as country music played throughout the bar, the crowd consisted of both young and old, both the experienced and the greenhorns.
Lori and John Wolfram of St. Cloud had never before tried their luck at the Jenkins VFW meat raffle. The Wolframs were visiting family, who have a lake home on Upper Hay Lake, on the weekend of their wedding anniversary. Having heard of the raffle from WCCO's poll, the Wolframs decided to check it out while staying nearby.
By the second round, the couple had already won two packages, one of a steak and one of bacon.
"We have breakfast and dinner, now we're going for lunch," Lori Wolfram said.
She said they've been to other meat raffles where only one person won per round; in Jenkins, 10 or more winners are often announced, with a wide selection of prizes.
Matt Adolph and girlfriend Julie Vinar of Kimball, who were camping in Pine River with Adolph's parents Bill and Brenda, were also Jenkins first-timers. Adolph boasted three packages of meat by round two, enough for him to be anointed with a "Meat Hog" sticker from the ticket sellers.
Parker said the stickers are just another fun aspect of the raffle and that people often "tattle" on their friends who've won several packages but have somehow managed to avoid a sticker.
Bob Kimball of Jenkins could very well have a permanent "Meat Hog" badge pinned to his shirt. Kimball, who lives a half-block away from the VFW, said he's won up to 16 packages of meat in a night and hasn't been grocery shopping for meat - save for a whole chicken or summer sausage here or there - in more than 12 years.
"I eat way too much meat," he laughed. He said his freezer is nearly full right now and he often gives away packages of meat to people to make more room. Kimball's been attending the raffle nearly every weekend since his wife died 13 years ago.
"It's my entertainment. It's my gambling," he said. "There's not a whole lot to do in Jenkins."
Besides attend Minnesota's best meat raffle, of course.
The Jenkins VFW will celebrate its 40th anniversary beginning at 2 p.m. on Saturday with games, Water Wars, live music and more, plus the meat raffle from 4-8 p.m.